By Dylan Cooper, columnist
It has been 11 years since I harvested anything on the opening day of archery. It’s rare I miss an opener, and I usually have done a ton of scouting and trail camera work to put myself in the best position possible to harvest a target buck before he wises up to the hunting pressure that is to come. But I still believe in luck when it comes to hunting and fishing because you can do all your studying, prepwork, and put yourself in the exact right time and place, and things can still go horribly wrong.
Flashback to last year’s archery opener: I had two target bucks skirt around me just out of range that morning. That evening I set up on the path I thought they would take returning to the field. They popped out on the other edge of the field, of course, well out of range. Then right before dark, I heard a twig snap below me and looked down to see a different target buck that was smelling my tree sticks attached to the tree I was in. The only problem was that I was hunting a tree right above the property line, which was a rock wall a few centuries old, and all he would stick across the wall was his nose. He never looked up, but just smelled around for a few minutes then quietly turned around without ever entering the field. That’s when I realized I have an opening day curse.
This season, I was determined that this opening morning was going to be different. I had a daily pattern figured out on a big eight pointer. I took the long way into the stand so as to not spook him out of the cut cornfield I suspected he was feeding in, and I walked in downwind of that area. The ground was covered in a heavy dew so my approach was dead quiet. Once it got light enough to see, a thick fog loomed over the whole area. My rangefinder would only tell me eight or nine yards no matter where I pointed it because the fog was so thick.
I was mainly focusing on watching in the direction where he typically came from in the morning, but occasionally I would look back over my shoulder. Around 7 a.m. I looked back, and here he came walking around the corner of the standing corn right on the path I came in on, nose to the ground. I had seen him for maybe one second before he looked up and noticed me, too. Since he was on my weak side, I was stuck where I was, playing chameleon, and in a staring contest with this big eight at only 11 yards. My chest started heaving like I had run a marathon. He did the thing where he looked at me from all angles, then put his nose to the ground a couple times to remember my scent and see if he could fake me out to catch me moving. After what seemed like five minutes, he started to slowly turn away. I turned around with him but by the time I was ready to shoot, he was already bounding away, tail up, into the fog. Right after that, I got a great picture of him leaving the area on my trail camera and that would be the last time I saw him for nearly three weeks before he finally showed up on camera again. The opening day curse lives on.
A week prior to that encounter, I took a pair of brothers hunting for youth day. We covered the same cornfield area and only set up for an evening hunt. I put Levi Strickler and his dad in a buddy stand over a cornfield with just one pass cut around it. I took the younger brother, Austin Strickler, and we set up a pop-up ground blind in some brush between two cornfields that were partially chopped. Austin was using a .243 and had to use a shooting stick because his left arm was in a cast. I had just got back in the blind after clearing some shooting lanes and hadn’t even wiped the sweat off my brow on this hot September evening when Austin said, “I see a deer!”
It was only 5:30 p.m., and yet we had three does and three fawns come out in the first 15 minutes. Austin had only bagged two fawns previously so he told me before the hunt that he wanted a big deer. I wanted him to shoot a doe only if it didn’t have a fawn with it. Then it was like it was meant to be as the last big doe that entered the field was just that. She came in feeding to about 40 yards when the lead doe started looking in our direction. I told him to shoot and did my “MEEHH” grunt with my mouth to get the last doe to stop broadside. He got steady on her and I held the fore end of the rifle down for him so it wouldn’t kick up out of the shooting stick with his broken arm. With my other hand, I recorded a video on my phone so we would be able to rewatch the shot. When the rifle cracked, the doe went straight down and never got up again. I exclaimed “You got it!” I couldn’t believe it had happened for him so easily and he just gave me a big ol’ grin.
Since he was allowed two deer per day, he asked if we could keep hunting, I said “Sure, maybe you’ll get a buck too.” We didn’t see anything else until sunset, when he once again spotted the deer before I did. I could see a rack on its head and exclaimed “There’s your buck!” We had to watch it groom itself while standing broadside at 100 yards. We had the same setup with the gun on the stick, and I was holding down the barrel and recording on my phone. Finally, it was a clear shot and I said “Shoot!” It took Austin a couple seconds to get steady and when he shot, the buck had just started taking a step forward, so I was immediately worried it was going to be a gut shot. It took off running with the shot and I continued to record. By the time Austin reloaded, I had watched the buck fall and expire right next to the road we came in on. I said “You got him! I can’t believe you, kid!” as I gave him a pat on the back. And just like that, he had his first big doe and buck. The buck was a decent 8 pointer that weighed 200 pounds liveweight. Sadly, the good luck didn’t carry over to older brother Levi as he didn’t see anything in his evening sit.
The four-day early duck season turned out to be a success for my hunting party too. Each day, we floated different sections of the local rivers in canoes, and we harvested a few Wood ducks. In my opinion, these are the best tasting duck I’ve ever had, and they are a real challenge to hit since they are small and fairly fast flyers. My 4-year-old yellow lab, Noah, was doing great by retrieving them from the canoe. I had made it my goal to get him one memorable bird per year to get taxidermied.
It was the last evening of the season and I had yet to get one worthy to put on the wall. We floated a stretch of river I had never been on before, but I figured no one else had hunted it either. We got into a few ducks within the first half mile, and on the first volley, it seemed at first that we missed them all. But as I watched them fly down the river, I saw one hit a sycamore branch then fall and make a splash. I noted the spot and we paddled down there a hundred yards or so.
The scene was like a verse out of a book of autumn poetry. The only sounds were birds chirping and water gurgling. The sun cast a golden hue from behind us. The multi-colored foliage in the treetops above matched the leaves scattered around floating on the river’s surface. And there amongst the leaf litter laid our beautiful mature male Wood duck, with a palette of colors any artist would envy. We didn’t fire another shot that trip even though we saw dozens of ducks, but just being in the surreal scenery that nature provided us that day on the Shenandoah was enough of a great finish to that trip.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.